Book Reviews: The Paper House On Human Street, Or Revolusie Song

February 22, 2016

By DRIES BRUNT, ROB HOFMEYR & KATE DENNILL

 

The Paper House by Dalena Theron                                                  5

The Girl from Human Street by Roger Cohen                                  7

‘n Konstante Revolusie edited by Lizette Rabe                                9

The Song by Chris Fabry                                                                    6

 

A debut book is a special bit of personal triumph and the promise of a step forwardon the narrow road toward national recognition as a writer.  Dalena Theron, an award-winning journalist, has achieved this, but The Paper House is a disappointment.  It fills pages and pages with the small talk of a family that is strangely composed of two gay fathers, a grandmother, a divorced mother, a daughter, friends and half a dozen dogs and cats. The plot involves a fairly tepid story that covers a short time in the characters’ lives with the usual domestic drama, alternated with some journalist-style cover stories that give the reader some breathing space outside of the stifling family circle. Giving her obvious writing talent, Dalena has more to offer than is on show here. – DB

Roger Cohen, a distinguished journalist, writes the odyssey of a Jewish family, tracing his mother’s line to Lithuania, from where the family migrated to the bright prospects of white South Africa. June was born on Human Street, which runs through Krugersdorp. The family prospered, part of a close-knit Jewish community, and in due course June married a doctor. They move between London and South Africa and it is in London that Roger is born. They return to South Africa only to uproot themselves in 1957, as the Treason Trial gets under way. The encroaching shadows of apartheid, in many ways reminiscent of Nazi policies, are more than the brilliant young doctor can bear. They establish themselves in London, and soon afterwards their daughter Jenny is born. The thread through the book is the tragic life of June Cohen from this point on. She is soon undergoing treatment for acute depression, and emerges only sporadically from the darkness of the disorder. The condition is not lightened by electrical shock treatment. She is often a recluse and is incapable of being a mother to her bewildered children. Roger’s own story is fascinating reading: he is a brilliant pupil, who wins a scholarship to Westminster and proceeds to Oxford. The real story is his account of what it was like for him to be a Jew in Establishment England. The subtleties of prejudice are hard to detect unless one is oneself the object. The Girl From Human Street takes us also on a journey to modern-day Lithuania, to the origins of the families we are reading about, and to the sites of mass murders at the hands of Nazis and collaborators. As we read the chronicles of the closely-related families, we revisit South Africa in various eras, before the First and then the Second World Wars, the post-War period of the new National Party regime, and the present day. The role of Jews, the degrees of protest or compliance or connivance in the politics of the day, their extraordinary business successes and their contribution in many fields, all find their place in this work. It is a comprehensive and sensitive account, with great depth of compassion. The excursus to modern Israel is less appealing. There is too much indecision, too much of the “reluctant Zionist”. Sometimes, especially when writing about his mother, Cohen’s prose becomes almost florid. The tragedy of June is not unique. She is, after all, a girl from Human Street. Depression haunts many families, though not less devastating for all that.Cohen has perhaps made this too central to what is a really good work. – RH

 

We think of monuments as constructs cast in stone or bronze but ‘n Konstante Revolusie is one made of paper and digital technology,  The book tells the story of Naspers/Media24, a company that has grown from a single paper publication  to a global media giant 100 years later. Essays by prominent writers, journalists and editors give an overview of South African history from a newspaper perspective. Navigating the Charybdis whirlpool passing the cave where Scylla the sea monster hides in Greek mythology is probably the best way to describe the agony of safeguarding newspaper independence and integrity and opposing political ideology in later years. This makes for interesting reading. The classic confrontation between Piet Cillier, Die Burger editor, and Hendrik Verwoerd in the NP’s heyday, is one such episode, as is the Naspers attitude toward the TRC and its relationship with cultural matters as opposed to prime business orientation. Read this book and fill yourself with pride that South Africans have created this newspaper-magazine-TV-Internet monument, the biggest in the world outside America and China, and operating in 133 countries world-wide. Equally important is the gradual shift from pure Afrikaans nationalism in the early days  to a greater and more rewarding acceptance of cultures  reflected in Naspers’ operational management. – DB

It’s a bit of a classic now in film and literature: boy meets girl, falls in love, gets married; his music career takes off, he goes on the road; falls for his co-star, starts taking drugs and wonders where it all went wrong. It all sounds very contemporary, so it’s interesting to see the parallels that are offered to the story of King Solomon, a story as old as time. Chris Fabry, proves that it is possible to turn a screenplay into a layered read (rather than the other way around, which is the expected version), taking Richard L. Ramsey’s film The Song and creating a decent work of fiction. It’s up to date, well-paced and not overly preachy, managing to deliver soundly on the illustration of the slippery slope that leads to despair and brokenness. If books have to come out of movies, then hopefully this is a change in the previous trend, which saw mostly superficial treatments of scripts. – KD

 

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